Sunday, January 1, 2006

Records In Review: Medeski Martin & Wood--End Of The World Party (Just In Case)

After due consideration, and consultation with my family, I came to the inevitable conclusion that it was time that I got funky wid it. How delightful to live in a society where you can do this for less than $13!

Medeski Martin & Wood, for those not in the know, are a hot-shot NY instrumental three-piece (keys, drums and bass, respectively) who've been around since the early '90s and who play groove-based fusiony funky stuff. They're fairly traditional in terms of sound, if you strip away the processing, synths and occasional sample. John Medeski is perfectly at home with piano, electric piano, clavinet and organ, and often plays in a punctuated style that's quite guitar-like (perhaps by default, in a three-piece). Chris Wood uses both upright and electric bass impressively, and drummer (not that) Billy Martin is a small-kit player who doesn't stray too often from his syncopated bass drum, snare and hi-hat rhythms.

End Of The World Party is essentially a groove and some chops in search of a brain. I got a similar impression a few years ago from listening to their late '90s album Combustication, which I'd recommend over this one. The playing is top-notch, particularly from Medeski and Wood (Martin's a very detailed drummer, but too restrained; I wish he'd cut loose once in a while), but as is often the case with the genre, structure is not a strong suit and the grooves regularly amble off into noodlesville. I could deal with that better if the hooks and heads (as the jazzebos say) weren't so silly and stereotyped a lot of the time. I honestly can't tell in songs like "Sasa" (fusion hook) and "Queen Bee" (funky hook) if they're taking the piss or no. If yes, then they need to carry it a little bit further to be effective; if not, then there's a definite lack of gray matter on the songwriting front.

"New Planet" and "Curtis" are both pretty good and kick it a little harder than some of the other tracks. The former has a goofy, good-natured bass groove and clavinet and guitar solos, and ends with a processed flute space-out that had me thinking of Gong; the latter's a syncopated fast shuffle-beat thingy with great processed organ as its main point of interest. Other good ones are opener "Anonymous Skulls," which sets orchestral surges and samples to a skulking groove, kind of like Moby with 'tude, and "Reflector," which is as funky, fast and processed as it gets here. The rest of it I can take or leave, being as it's mostly wandering and/or not too clever. "Ice" starts out with a nice atmosphere and an octaved piano line, but doesn't really go anywhere. "Bloody Oil"--message? ya think?--puts a "middle-eastern" pentatonic melody through some interesting turns of production but the musical point is made in the first 30 seconds. I might appreciate "Mami Gato" more if I weren't allergic to most things latin. "Queen Bee" should only be listened to by middle-aged white men dressed in black, wearing berets, and snapping their fingers in time to the beat while ordering lattes.

I wouldn't say that MMW isn't my kind of thing, but I do prefer a little more oomph, directness and/or structure, of the kind that you'd find in another NY funky band from back in the day. I'd like them to sound like they're having a bit more fun with it, too. Recommendation: groovy wallpaper music.